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WHEN 45-year-old Zawiah Ismail's husband doesn't come home to her after work, she doesn't stay up all night worrying that he's out flirting with younger women.

That's because she knows he must have gone to his first or second wife's bed instead.

"If he doesn't come home, I just call up wife number one or number two and ask them, 'Is he there with you? Is he there with you? Oh he is, OK!'," she laughs as she shares a hearty meal with the two older women and their children.

Zawiah is the third wife of 59-year-old Mokhtar Samad, a successful businessman who married 54-year-old Latipah Shamsuddin in 1970, and tied the knot with Norasni, 50, in 1981. He wed Zawiah two years later in 1983.

Mokhtar takes turns spending the night with his three wives, who all live in their own comfortable homes located within walking distance of one another in a village outside the Malaysian capital.

"I try to do the best I can for them, I try to be fair. And they tell me they're happy. But you'd have to ask them," he says.

"How you solve any problems is important. You must get everyone involved. I always listen to all my wives' opinions, and we have to try to come up with a solution together."

Original purpose distorted

The issue of polygamy is being hotly debated in mainly-Muslim Malaysia, after the government proposed legislation that would make it easier to enter into multiple marriages - a practice some women's groups want banned.

Muslim men here are allowed up to four wives, but activists say the practice is cruel and that it has been distorted from its original purpose during the days of the Prophet which was to protect widows and orphans.

Activists say the story of Mokhtar's contented family is not the norm, and that sagas of abuse, abandonment and jealousy are far more common.

Mohamad Adam Zakri, 45, heartily agrees. He became the envy of his friends when he married a woman who caught his eye at their workplace, a major financial institution.

But he now says his decision cost all of them their happiness.

"She was very good at capturing my heart, she bought me breakfast every day even though she knew I was already married," says Mohamad Adam who asked to go under a pseudonym to protect his identity.

"I finally had to confess to my first wife. One day I sat them down, one on the left and one on the right, as both of them asked to meet the other. But once they met, they didn't even speak to each other. They just cried."

One unhappy spisode

Mohamad Adam, who already had three children with his first wife, went on to have another three with his new spouse. But he says he is paying dearly for his actions.

"My first wife has been unhappy ever since. She protested at first in silence. Officially, she consented. But deep inside she is protesting. Jealousy is a huge problem for us.

"To tell you the truth, I just regret the whole thing. Both of them cannot accept it. My new wife previously said she could accept the situation, but once she became my wife, she started to demand her rights."

Mohamad Adam alternates days with each spouse, but says they bicker about everything from the amount of time he spends with each to what size TV set their household has.

"If I'm late coming home, they'll say things like 'You must've been with that cursed bitch'," he says.

"I make myself busy now. On weekends I go and play golf. If it makes them more angry or frustrated, then so be it, I cannot be suffering the whole of my life. My quality of life must not suffer."

Press reports are littered with cases of unhappy polygamous marriages, including a truck driver who swallowed weedkiller when he could not stop his two wives from arguing, and spurned first wives throwing acid at their husbands.

Norhayati Kaprawi from leading rights group Sisters in Islam says the concept of polygamy has been warped and that it should at least be subject to strict conditions to ensure women are fairly treated.

"It is definitely grossly unfair to Muslim women," she says. "The first wife should be given the option to enter or opt out of a polygamous marriage."

Sisters in Islam quotes verses from the Koran which discourage the practice, and notes it was introduced at a time when the Muslim community was small, many men had been killed in battle, and there were many widows and orphans.

She said many of the Prophet's wives were elderly widowed women, and noted that this is rarely the case nowadays.

"Far from actually marrying because of orphans or looking after old women they are marrying younger, prettier women," she said of modern Malaysian polygamists.

Protecting first wives

After a public outcry, the government's proposed Family Law bill - which would have lowered the barrier to polygamous marriage by dropping the requirement that all wives must be treated equally - is now being extensively reviewed.

"We hope that the rights of the first wives will be protected," said Norhayati.

Mokhtar is coy about what advice he might give to would-be polygamists, but emphasises that compromise and discussion are the key.

Zawiah says that Mokhtar is fair and always brings all three wives, each of whom have borne him three children, to every official function.

"Even if there is just an invitation for one wife he will still bring all three of us. So it really sometimes creates havoc for them to rearrange the seating," she says with a chuckle.

"We consider ourselves unique," laughs middle wife Norasni. "Small domestic problems, that's normal. What I mean is, we don't go around knocking each other, we haven't done that since the very beginning.

"We haven't tugged at each other's hair, if that's what you want to know."

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